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Friday, June 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By John Hartl
If you saw "Hearts and Minds," the Oscar-winning 1974 documentary about the Vietnam War, you probably haven't forgotten the film's agonizing depiction of Vietnamese funerals. A man who has lost his children screams at the camera, blaming President Nixon; a woman who has lost her son tries to crawl into the grave with his coffin. Then the general commander of U.S. forces speaks.
"Well, the Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the Westerner," says Gen. William Westmoreland. "Life is plentiful, life is cheap, and, as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important."
That same kind of jaw-dropping juxtaposition turns up in the opening scenes of Jehane Noujaim's "Control Room," which mixes Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's similarly dismissive comments with the screams of an Iraqi woman who has just lost everything in the Baghdad bombings and blames President Bush.
Cheap shot? Some would say so, and some did say so when "Hearts and Minds" was released. It's also powerful filmmaking, based on the premise that officials should be held accountable for their publicly expressed attitudes. Westmoreland's wartime philosophy tells us a great deal about his feelings toward the people he was liberating. Will Rumsfeld's comments be equally revealing?
Specifically, Rumsfeld is claiming that Al-Jazeera, by showing such scenes of personal devastation, is not telling the truth. The Bush administration's view is that Al-Jazeera, which now has 40 million Arab viewers, has become "the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden." But are they merely shooting the messenger?
The demonization of Al-Jazeera is the true subject of "Control Room," which puts a human face on a network that has been almost equally demonized by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and Saddam's Iraq. But the network is undeniably popular with viewers. Al-Jazeera's candid, unsparing approach to the "shock and awe" of last year's attack on Baghdad has much to do with viewer trust.
As the movie proceeds, showing Al-Jazeera's employees on the job and sparring with an American press officer, it becomes more and more difficult to see the network as merely propagandistic.
This U.S. Marine, who sticks to his conviction that "we're here to help the Iraqi people," becomes less and less dogmatic in his approach, admitting at one point that Al-Jazeera is simply the Arab equivalent of Fox News.
In the context of "Control Room" (a wonderfully ambiguous title), the American shelling of the Palestine Hotel, which killed several journalists, seems more ominous than when it was first reported by American networks. So does the American censorship of a Shiite newspaper this spring.
Shot on a shoestring, Noujaim's eye-opening documentary consistently asks the tough questions, while giving its subjects (and, implicitly, the audience) a remarkable forum for discussion.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
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